Wednesday, February 14, 2018

2017 Cybils Winner for Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction and thoughts on all the Finalists

Cybils 2017

It's February 14th and in addition to being Valentines Day, it's also the day the winners of the Cybils are announced!  This year I was selected as a round 2 judge, which for us started two months ago. 

Since that time we've been busy reading the seven finalists books,  having discussions and then made our decision on this year's winner for Elementary/Middle-Grade Speculative Fiction.  So with no further ado, this year's winner is.....


Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis
Format:  Hardcover
Publisher:  Harper Collins/Walden Pond Press
Number of pages: 247
Published: May 30th, 2017

Synopsis from Goodreads: 
Aventurine is the fiercest, bravest dragon there is. And she's ready to prove it to her family by leaving the safety of their mountain cave and capturing the most dangerous prey of all: a human. But when the human she finds tricks her into drinking enchanted hot chocolate, Aventurine is transformed into a puny human girl with tiny blunt teeth, no fire, and not one single claw.

But she's still the fiercest creature in the mountains -- and now she's found her true passion: chocolate! All she has to do is get herself an apprenticeship (whatever that is) in a chocolate house (which sounds delicious), and she'll be conquering new territory in no time...won't she?

This year’s winner is a story of dragons, chocolate, finding one’s passion, and facing social prejudice. Aventurine is a young dragon whose family thinks she’s too young to leave their cave. Convinced that she’s perfectly fierce enough, she sneaks out on her own, hoping to find in the outside world both something to hunt and maybe even something to be her dragon-ish passion in life. When a human, who should have been easy prey, tricks her into drinking enchanted hot chocolate, she finds herself turned into a human girl! On the plus side, she’s found her passion—chocolate!  But in order to get more chocolate, she’ll have to go live with puny humans as a puny human herself.  Can a fierce dragon girl find a place among humans (when she gets angry, her first instinct is to eat them), and enough chocolate to keep her happy?  And what happens when her dragon family comes looking for her? Tensions build and tempers flare, and the suspense builds to a happily satisfying ending. Themes of finding your true self, and loyalty to family and friends combine with political intrigue and prejudice in a memorable and gripping story.

Round 2 judging for the Cybils was a totally new experience and quite fun being all mysterious and secretive about posting my review until the winners were announced.  There was a wonderful group of books selected as finalists, making our final selection a bit harder but I hope you get the opportunity to read some of these wonderful books and check out all the Cybils winners in all of the categories HERE.  

 2017 Cybils Finalists for Elementary/ Middle-Grade Speculative Fiction:

Last Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson
Format:  Hardcover
Publisher:  Harper Collins/Walden Pond Press
Number of pages:  336
Published: February 14th, 2017
Source:  Library

Synopsis from Goodreads:  

It is Earth year 2213—but, of course, there is no Earth anymore. Not since it was burned to a cinder by the sun, which has mysteriously begun the process of going supernova. The human race has fled to Mars, but this was only a temporary solution while we prepare for a second trip: a one-hundred-fifty-year journey to a distant star, our best guess at where we might find a new home.

Liam Saunders-Chang is one of the last humans left on Mars. The son of two scientists who have been racing against time to create technology vital to humanity’s survival, Liam, along with his friend Phoebe, will be on the very last starliner to depart before Mars, like Earth before it, is destroyed.

Or so he thinks. Because before this day is over, Liam and Phoebe will make a series of profound discoveries about the nature of time and space, and find out that the human race is just one of many in our universe locked in a desperate struggle for survival.

Opening line: “Many hundreds of light-years from the solar system you call home, inside a spindly crystal structure floating at the edge of a great nebula shaped like an eye, a yellow light began to blink.”  

The cover is eye-catching and really captured my interest.   I really enjoyed the concept of the universe is bigger than one can comprehend while the individual was a small part of it.  The plot centering on the Sun expanding to the point that it will engulf Earth and the surrounding planets by exploding in a supernova seemed plausible and was set up well in the first few chapters.  The appeal to kids comes from the balance of tension and action. While I'm not typically a science fiction reader this was such an engrossing book.  The pacing kept ratcheting up accentuated by the time clock at the beginning of each chapter and the feeling of the impending doom that faced these two kids.  Maybe it's the dangers that they face along the way and the glimpses of the future that Liam see's when he time shifts forward.  You want the things he sees not to happen.  Or maybe it's just that I've seen Alien and the whole idea of going into a stasis seems frightening. Although this ended on a cliffhanger, I didn't take this as a negative.  Instead, it just made me want to read The Oceans Between Stars that much more.  Lucky for me this came out in February.  

26102519The Countdown Conspiracy by Katie Slivensky
Format:  Hardcover
Publisher:  Harper Collins
Number of pages:  336
Published: August 1st, 2017
Source:  Library

Synopsis from Goodreads:  
Ambassador, you are go for launch in T- minus 5…4…3…2…. Get ready to blast off with this high-action, high-stakes middle-grade adventure that’s perfect for fans of Chris Grabenstein and Peter Lerangis!

Miranda Regent can’t believe she was just chosen as one of six kids from around the world to train for the first ever mission to Mars. But as soon as the official announcement is made, she begins receiving anonymous threatening messages…and when the training base is attacked, it looks like Miranda is the intended target. Now the entire mission—and everyone’s lives—are at risk. And Miranda may be the only one who can save them.

The Martian meets The Goonies in this out-of-this-world middle-grade debut where the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Opening Line:  "Nearly every single person in this auditorium is wearing a T-shirt with my name emblazoned across the front."

The Countdown Conspiracy reads partially like a mystery and a school story while at the same time there is a political unrest going on in the world.  I enjoyed the diversity in the team of kids.  There are the dynamics of the classes that the crew take together, while there are also rivalries to get the best position,  grades and favor of their instructors.  Most of the emphasis is on Anna and Miranda not getting along, but also that maybe Sasha's position was stolen by Miranda on the team.  A little more scientific than I was expecting, but I really enjoyed the action when their spacecraft is taken over and they have to work together to figure out how to divert themselves from going to Mars.  You can see how much research went into the writing of this book to get the details of space travel and NASA type engineering as accurate as possible.

31915219A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge
Format:  Ebook 
Publisher:  Amulet Books
Number of pages:  497
Published: May 9th, 2017
Source:  Library

Synopsis from Goodreads:  
In the underground city of Caverna, the world’s most skilled craftsmen toil in the darkness to create delicacies beyond compare—wines that remove memories, cheeses that make you hallucinate, and perfumes that convince you to trust the wearer, even as they slit your throat. On the surface, the people of Caverna seem ordinary, except for one thing: their faces are as blank as untouched snow. Expressions must be learned, and only the famous Facesmiths can teach a person to express (or fake) joy, despair, or fear—at a steep price. Into this dark and distrustful world comes Neverfell, a girl with no memory of her past and a face so terrifying to those around her that she must wear a mask at all times. Neverfell's expressions are as varied and dynamic as those of the most skilled Facesmiths, except hers are entirely genuine. And that makes her very dangerous indeed . . . 

Opening Line: “One dark season, Grandible became certain that there was something living in his domain within the cheese tunnels.”

I really enjoyed A Face Like Glass, it leans more toward  Young Adult than Middle Grade but it's a fantastic story.  Hardinge's books to me have this rich expressive writing quality that I enjoy.  Like this one  "As the carriage rattled along sandstone colonnades, then down rose-marble avenues dappled like raspberry ice cream, she found herself passing ever grander carriages with better-decorated people within." I did think that the beginning was a tad slow but it did grab hold of me and I couldn't really put it down.  The Facesmith and idea of faces that people wear being taught were very intriguing.  Neverfell is way too trusting and doesn't really seem to grasp that the people she's dealing with can show one face, but have a completely different intent.   Kinda made me think of Game of Thrones and the masks that Arya wears.  I also especially liked the Grand Steward with his right/left eye showing the differences between your right and left brain functioning.    The world building and complex political intrigue are wonderful, even the messaging, for which I know I'm missing some.  It's the kind of book that I would really like to go back and read again.  

Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh
Format:  Hardcover
Publisher:  Harper Collins
Number of Pages:  288
Published:  July 25th, 2017
Source:  Library

Synopsis from Goodreads:  

We Need Diverse Books founder Ellen Oh returns with Spirit Hunters, a high-stakes middle-grade mystery series about Harper Raine, the new seventh grader in town who must face down the dangerous ghosts haunting her younger brother. A riveting ghost story and captivating adventure, this tale will have you guessing at every turn!

Harper doesn’t trust her new home from the moment she steps inside, and the rumors are that the Raine family’s new house is haunted. Harper isn’t sure she believes those rumors, until her younger brother, Michael, starts acting strangely. The whole atmosphere gives Harper a sense of déjà vu, but she can’t remember why. She knows that the memories she’s blocking will help make sense of her brother’s behavior and the strange and threatening sensations she feels in this house, but will she be able to put the pieces together in time?

Opening Line:  "Harper! Come quick!"

Spirit Hunters was a lot creepier than I thought it was going to be, which made it a wonderful story for me cause I love creepy scary things.  There are multiple incidents of Harper being injured by the presence in the house, and her younger brother Michael being taken over by a supernatural presence, yeah just creepy.  I did really like the diversity and the touching and realistic relationship between the siblings.   I did wish that more had been written about Harper's grandmother's  being a Korean mudang.  Maybe some of the cultural histories,  although it did prompt me to look it up a little bit online.  She sounded so fascinating that it was a shame that she couldn't be included more in the story.  I also really liked the character of Mrs. Devereux and especially her views on racism.   

A Properly Unhaunted Place by William Alexander
Format:  Hardcover
Publisher:  Margaret K. McElderry Books
Number of Pages:  192
Published:  August 22nd, 2017
Source:  Library

Synopsis from Goodreads:  
Rosa Ramona Díaz has just moved to the small, un-haunted town of Ingot—the only ghost-free town in the world. She doesn’t want to be there. She doesn’t understand how her mother—a librarian who specializes in ghost-appeasement—could possibly want to live in a place with no ghosts. Frankly, she doesn’t understand why anyone would.

Jasper Chevalier has always lived in Ingot. His father plays a knight at the local Renaissance Festival, and his mother plays the queen. Jasper has never seen a ghost, and can’t imagine his un-haunted town any other way. Then an apparition thunders into the festival grounds and turns the quiet town upside down.

Something otherworldly is about to be unleashed, and Rosa will need all her ghost appeasement tools—and a little help from Jasper—to rein in the angry spirits and restore peace to Ingot before it’s too late.

Opening line:  "Rosa and her mother moved into a basement apartment underneath the Ingot Public Library. "

I quite liked this quick read and the twist of Ingot being the only place where ghosts aren't found, how in other cities ghosts are plentiful.  How it's wrong for Ingot not to have any ghost, while everywhere else ghosts and the living have found a way to coexist.  Rosa and Jasper are the only ones who can unravel what has been keeping the ghosts away.  I also enjoyed the emphasis on librarians and the patron saint Catalina de Erauso with the idea of remembering the dead through the books that you read.  It's not a particularly scary story but would be an interesting read if you enjoy paranormal stories, or are just starting out to explore ghost stories.   

Favorite lines:  "Whenever you open an old book you read it along with everyone else who's ever read that same book.  You're supposed to.  Hauntings don't end.  Ghosts don't ever just go away." 

30653902Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded by Sage Blackwood
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Format:  Hardcover

Number of Pages: 368
Published:  March 21st, 2017
Source: Library

Synopsis from Goodreads: 
Chantel would much rather focus on her magic than on curtsying, which is why she often finds herself in trouble at Miss Ellicott’s School for Magical Maidens. But when Miss Ellicott mysteriously disappears along with all the other sorceresses in the city, Chantel’s behavior becomes the least of her problems.

Without any magic protecting the city, it is up to Chantel and her friends to save the Kingdom. On a dangerous mission, Chantel will discover a crossbow-wielding boy, a dragon, and a new, fiery magic that burns inside her—but can she find the sorceresses and transform Lightning Pass into the city it was meant to be?

Opening line:  " A secret nearly cost Chantel her life, on a dark summer morning when the rains ran down the stairstepped stone streets of Lightning Pass." 

Chantel is an endearing character, head strung while struggling to hold her tongue.  The messaging in this story is what appealed to me.  Questioning adults and having your own ideas of what is right and wrong.  The character's of Miss Ellicott's were also nicely balanced with boy/girl characters and there was plenty of humor with the inclusion of Chantel's familiar, although a snake in your head sounds unsettling.  A very timely story with wonderful world building, entertaining to read while being thought-provoking.  


  1. Congrats to the Dragon with a Chocolate Heart! Thank you for your work on this - it's great fun to read your opinions of them.

  2. This is a great list of books. I hear my TBR calling. Thanks for the post.

  3. I haven't read any of these- yet. But- many of them are on my TBR list. I can't wait to read The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart! Thanks for sharing this with us. :)